What Distinguishes Sheol from Hell?

If you are not familiar with the terms Sheol, Gehenna, etc. please see some of the previous blogs at this site.

The Bible has a number of terms that describe places of after death suffering:  Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.  In many versions of the Bible and in many people’s minds, these all get lumped under the term “Hell”.  More careful study shows you that Hades and Sheol are the same thing (just a different language for each word).  Gehenna and the “lake of fire” are most likely the same as well.  The thing that distinguishes these groups is the Sheol is before Judgment Day and Gehenna is after Judgment Day.  But is that the only difference?

The descriptions used for these places can seem confusingly similar:  fire, worms, anguish.  The similarities between Sheol (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna or Hell as we call it) are probably a key reason why they are conflated in most people’s understanding of the destiny of the damned.

The same could be said for Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth.  Both have God’s direct presence and the absence of sin, Satan and suffering, but they are not the same thing.

The fact that Sheol and Hell are different is made by Revelation 20 where Sheol (Hades) is dumped into the Lake of Fire.    A qualitative difference is found in Psalm 139.  Psalm 139 speaks of the presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Old Testament people expected to go to Sheol at their deaths. Part of Sheol, sometimes referred to as “The Bosom of Abraham” or “The Limbo of the Fathers” was a place of comfort, but still outside the visible presence of God.  Psalm 139 may be referring to just this good neighborhood of Sheol or, more likely, the whole thing.  The final judgment involves God forsaking a place and its contents.  So a key difference may be that Sheol is still without the absence of God, even for the damned.  That doesn’t make it nice.  But it certainly suggests Hell is worse.  It is hard to imagine being forsaken by God.  It is not like we are conscious of His presence even now.  But when God is gone so are all good things.  Hope, friendship, happiness, every good thing gone.

Another difference is the company one would have in Hell.  There is no reference of Satan or demons in Sheol.  The classic picture of demons enjoying the tormenting of the damned is non-biblical fantasy.  Sheol seems to be for people.  The Lake of Fire, says Revelation 20, is prepared for Satan, his cohorts, and those in Sheol.  The point is made that their torment is “day and night for ever and ever”.  So no rest or reprieve for them.  They suffer together.

That God would make punishment eternal offends many people.  The suffering seems disproportionate to the sins.  In the end, those who suffer in Hell didn’t want God.  They have rejected His love, rejected His rule and (for people) rejected that great sacrifice made to save them.  Hell is essentially getting that for which you asked.  The eternal nature of Satan, angels and people is simply a part of what we are.

Sheol may also be different in that it holds a dim ray of hope.  Jesus’ post-crucifixion descent into Sheol seems to be for the purpose of saving some who are there. 1 Peter 4:6 makes this point.  What is criteria?  Are those in Sheol capable of faith?  Did Jesus go more than once or reach out to more than “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah?(1 Peter 3:18)  We don’t know.

The differences, though small, point to the importance of Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is the “line in the sand”.  Things change for the worst for those without Christ.  Things change for the better for those who are in Christ.